His best friend's baby
Best friends Rebecca Stewart and Ben McFarlane were the couple most likely to marry. But when their chemistry finally bubbled over, it was on the night Ben left town to become an international polo champion.
Three years later and Ben is back. He's a sports star used to women falling at his feet, and she's a waitress and single mom. But they do have one very important thing in common Now Rebecca must find the words to tell Ben he's a father!
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Rebecca Stewart gulped as the door to the restaurant opened. Ben McFarlane. It had been almost four years, but she'd have known him anywhere. Dark blond hair cropped short, broad shoulders stretching the material of his T-shirt and a stare that still managed to make her heart beat too fast. He was exactly as she remembered him and then some. "Long time no see."
His gaze softened as he came closer, the corners of his mouth turning upward into a smile, but she could tell he was angry. Those eyes had caused her heart to break and heal all over again so many years ago, the last night they'd had together still burned into her memory as if it was yesterday. She knew every expression he had.
Rebecca swallowed, smiled back, her stomach flip-flopping. He didn't know. Couldn't know. That angry gaze, determined stride she'd thought he was coming in with a purpose when she'd first recognized him. That he knew about his daughter.
She pushed those thoughts away and tried to remind herself of how they'd been before that night, back when they'd been best friends and nothing more.
"Hey, stranger," she said. "I had no idea you were back."
Rebecca moved out from around the counter, hands smoothing the soft cotton of her apron. She didn't know what to dowhether to embrace him, touch him. What did you do to a man, formerly your best friend, once your lover, who you hadn't seen or heard from in years?
"Hey." His voice was surprisingly gruff.
Rebecca stepped into his arms when he opened them, gingerly at first, until he pulled her in, giving her an awkward kind of bear hug. She tried to relax, focusing on breathing in and out. They were just friends. But after all this time he still had that effect on her. The smell of his cologne, the strength of his body, everything about him took her back to that night, when a decade of friendship had turned into something more. The night before he'd left and she'd encouraged him to leave her behind even though it had shattered her heart into a million pieces.
"How are you, Bec? Haven't heard from you in a while."
Ouch. The hug must have been a formality.
She took a step back, his hands falling from her waist. It was warm but she shivered, wrapping one arm about her body, the other hanging awkwardly at her side.
"I've been good, Ben. Really good," she said, forcing a big smile, avoiding the question. It wasn't as if he'd emailed her lately, either.
Rebecca smiled. Her parents would love to know that Ben was back in town.
"They're great." This time she didn't have to force the grin. "Very busy, enjoying their retirement, so I'm running this place on my own most of the time."
She looked over her shoulder, catching a glimpse of commotion in the kitchen. When she turned back to Ben she noticed he was watching, taking everything in. He'd known her parents' Italian restaurant just as well as she had when they were teenagers. They'd both worked waiting tables over their last summer break, before he'd had the opportunity of a lifetime and left for Argentina.
"Anyway, how about you? What brings you back?"
Ben jammed both hands into his jeans pockets, eyes down before he looked up and met her stare. She knew something was wrong. Why was he even back here?
"Has something happened to your grandfather?" Rebecca heard the falter in her own voice.
"He's not doing great, even though he'd hate me telling you that." He squared his shoulders and pushed his feet out wider. "It was time to come home anyway. I've done my time overseas, for now."
"Really? It's not like you were getting too old to play." She ran her eyes over his super-fit frame. He was all muscle, all athlete. It wasn't like polo players had a use-by date, so long as they were still performing, and she'd never expected him to give up his career voluntarily. Not for anything.
That made him laugh. "I'm not too old, and I'm fit as hell, so don't go feeling sorry for me." His voice was dry. "I just decided I'd been away for long enough, and Gus needs the help. Argentina was fun, but I missed the old fella."
Oh. She tried to digest his words. It sent a cold streak down her spine. "So you're back for good?"
"Yeah, for the time being, anyway," he said. "If you'd been better at emailing me back, I might have given you a heads-up."
Ouch again. "Ben, I just got busy and there was so much happening. I'm sorry." She knew it sounded like a cop-out, and it was. But he hadn't emailed for a long time, so it wasn't all her fault.
He looked up, gave her a long, hard stare before training his eyes past her head.
"So tell me, how long have you been back? What are your plans?" she asked.
"I'm just playing it by ear. I'll see how it goes, how much I can do around the farm."
Rebecca tried not to react, digested the information as if it meant nothing to her. Polo had always been his life, his dream to play as a career, and now he'd just given it up like that? As if it wasn't the single most important thing to him after years of being desperate to make it happen?
"So that's it. You're just not going to play anymore?" she asked.
A shrug of his shoulders told her he was uncertain. Ben always pushed them up, then hunched them when he was uncomfortable.
"Things change, Bec. You know how it is."
Yeah, she did. Only she was pretty certain that he hadn't just had a change of heartsomething else had to be going on. If he was doing it for Gus, she completely understood, but she smelled a rat.
"Anyway, I've only just arrived back in. I'm still going to be training horses, I'm just taking time out from playing." He smiled. "I'm heading for Geelong in the morning."
Rebecca turned and walked back toward the counter, trying to ignore the rising heat in her cheeks. Her pulse had started hammering hard at her temple. Geelong. The place where his grandfather's horse training establishment was. The place she'd spent every school vacation and weekend, hanging out with Ben and dreaming about their future. Only she hadn't realized how much of a man's sport polo wasshe'd ended up bravely waving Ben off while she stayed behind. It had been tough for him to make it, and even tougher for her to try to make a career out of it. But they'd only been friends, it wasn't as if he'd left his girlfriend behind.
"My granddad turned eighty last week, and I know the cancer's probably worse than he's letting on. I'm heading there to learn everything I can and slowly take the reins from him. Excuse the pun."
"He must be so happy to have you back," Rebecca said, refusing to think about what-ifs just because Ben was back in town and standing before her. It wouldn't have mattered if he'd stayed or not, they'd both wanted different things, and their one night together had been the result of too much to drink. He hadn't owed her anything. She took a deep breath. "You're going to love being home."
He smiled, but his eyes told a different story. He was annoyed with her, and she didn't know what to say to him except sorry for not staying in touch. But she hadn't been able to keep emailing him and not mention what was going on in her life, which meant that losing contact with him had been the only option. She'd always sworn that if he came back she'd tell him, but the guys he played polo with had become his family, he'd always said he loved what he did and wouldn't give it up for anything.
"It was what we always talked about, huh? The two of us playing polo overseas then coming back to run a horse stud together."
"Yeah," she said softly, not wanting to go back in time because thinking about the past only hurt. "Yeah, it was."
"But, anyway, tell me about you? I heard a terrible rumor yesterday that you have a daughter." He chuckled. "Is it true?"
Rebecca placed one hand on the stainless steel counter, trying to stop the quiver as it ran up and down her body. Her daughter. How much did he know? She'd wanted to be the one to tell him.
"Yeah, I'm a mom now," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady and her breathing even. "To Lexie."
"Lexie," he repeated the name, the word on his lips sending another wave of worry down her back. "And who's the lucky man?"
"Man?" she asked. "Your husband?"
Gulp. Husband. Hmm. "I, ah, well, there is no lucky someone. It's just me and Lexie."
"You mean some bastard left you, after you'd had his child? That why you didn't stay in touch with me? Because you knew I'd hunt him down?"
She did not like where this was going. Mmm, what did she say. Yes, Ben, and that bastard was you? That's exactly why I stopped returning your emails. But she didn't think of him like that, because she'd made the decision to keep Lexie a secret, to protect both of them, but mainly to make sure she wasn't the one responsible for clipping his wings.
"Let's just say I was better off bringing her up on my own, at least for the time being," Rebecca said, being careful with her words. "My folks have been great and she's a happy little girl, so it's all worked out okay."
The look on Ben's face told her he was unconvinced. "And your dad didn't try to do something about it? Or your brother, for that matter?"
Rebecca needed to change the subject. Fast. She needed time to think about how she was going to tell Ben, how she was going to break it to him. "They weren't thrilled about the whole thing, but sometimes life throws a curve ball and you just have to deal with it."
He opened his mouth, looked grumpy as hell and about to say something else about her solo parenting situation so she quickly interrupted him.
"Do you want something to eat?" she asked. "We can still rustle up your favorite seafood linguine if you like?"
The frown on Ben's face almost instantly spun upward into a smile. "You still do it?"
"We still can do it," she said with a laugh. "It's an oldie but a goodie, that one. Not officially on the lunch menu, but a version of it's still a dinner favorite so we have the ingredients."
This time when he looked at her he didn't break the stare, not for a second. His eyes were locked on hers, his dark brown irises flecked with gold in the bright light.
"I have to go, but how about I take you up on that offer another day? Maybe when you're not so busy and you can join me?"
She forced herself to keep breathing, which felt like the most unnatural thing in the world all of a sudden with Ben standing in front of her. The last thing she needed was to sit down and have lunch with him.
"Sounds good. It would be nice to catch up."
Someone in the kitchen called out her name, giving her an excuse to break away, to finally glance away from the eyes that had been holding her captive.
"I'll see you around, Bec." Ben held his hand up in the air and took a few steps backward before turning and heading for the door.
Rebecca watched him, didn't move a muscle until he'd disappeared from sight, ignoring the chaos behind her. Her heart was thumping with what she knew was excitement, but the rest of her was a quivering mess of nerves, ready to slip into a puddle on the floor. Because there was no part of Ben being back that was okay, none at all.
* * *
Ben stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and walked down the street, through the crowded lunchtime buzz of inner city Melbourne. He loved Australia, loved being back on home turf and knowing he was where he belonged. Living overseas had been a blast, but the idea of dividing his time between the city and his granddad's farm was what he wanted now, and he knew he'd made the right decision coming home. As hard as it was leaving his polo family behind, he couldn't stay away from Gus any longer.
And seeing Bec? Wow. He'd only been home one day and it had been a fight not to turn up at the restaurant that first night, just to lay eyes on her again. The girl who'd waved him goodbye, his best friend, and then slowly disappeared from his life. But who could blame her? He hadn't exactly been the best at staying in touch, but then she'd been downright terrible.
And then she'd met some other guy and had a kid? Little Bec all grown up and a mom? Now, that he hadn't been expecting. In his mind he'd imagined her life on hold, expected he could come home and somehow he'd be able to convince her that their night together had been a good thing, that they were supposed to be more than just friends. He'd been a fool, naive at best, and after seeing her today he knew he'd waited too long, that she'd moved on and he'd missed his chance.
Because even though he'd had the time of his life away, ridden some of the best polo ponies in the world and traveled to the most incredible countries, he'd never stopped thinking about Rebecca. Not for a moment. At the time, he'd been so desperate to belong, loved being part of a big extended polo family, when in reality he'd had a little family here with Gus and Rebecca all along, only it had taken being away so long for him to realize it. It wasn't until his granddad had finally admitted how sick he was that it had really hit home.
Rebecca's soft, smiling face, pillowy lips and shining eyes had been the memory he'd clung on to, and almost four years on, he was darn pleased she didn't have a husband. He could never stay angry with her and seeing her today had proved it. He'd gone in all tough guy, wanting to demand why she'd lost touch. But he hadn't. And they might have been drunk that night together, but he hadn't forgotten a moment of what had happened between them.
He'd kill the guy who'd left her, on her own and with a child, and he'd bet her parents would be happy to help him find him. Rebecca had been his best friend, and for one night she'd been his lover. Ben grimaced as he jumped behind the wheel of his car. And that one night had ruined everything between them.
Rebecca strolled in to the preschool center and locked eyes on her daughter. Lexie was running around the room at high speed, arms spread out as if she was flying, her little lips bouncing off one another to make a noise like a plane. Her heart fluttered and she turned away, not wanting Lexie to see her yet. Her little girl was clingy enough as it was, and she loved seeing her play with the other kids.
Bec turned to find Julia, one of the teachers, behind her. She was holding out a colorful, smudged sheet of paper.
"Lexie painted this today and insisted I put it somewhere safe for Mommy."
The grin that followed made her smile, and she reached out to take it. "She has quite a talent, don't you think?"
Both women laughed then as Bec held out the painting and squinted, trying to decipher exactly what it was. "A house covered in green slime?" she guessed.
"Day at the beach?"
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